History of the UN Human Rights Programme

Summary

Provides an overview of the history and growth of the UN Human Rights Programme. Including important milestones such as establishing the post of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Right and the General Assembly adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and

The UN Human Rights Programme has grown considerably since its modest beginnings some 60 years ago. Organizationally, it started with a small division in the UN Secretariat in New York in the 1940s. The division later moved to Geneva and was upgraded to the Centre for Human Rights in the 1980s. At the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993, Member States decided to establish a more robust human rights institution, and later that year the General Assembly passed a resolution establishing the post of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

This resolution transformed the Centre for Human Rights into the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), with a wide-ranging mandate and primary responsibility in the United Nations system for human rights. Twelve years later, at the 2005 UN World Summit, Heads of State from around the world committed themselves to an historic expansion of the UN human rights programme that recognized the central role and importance of ensuring a human rights approach in all aspects of the work of the United Nations system as a whole; this also linked the three pillars of the organization’s role—peace and security, development and human rights.

The growth in UN human rights activities reflects the increasing strength of the international human rights movement since the General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December 1948. Drafted as “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and nations,” the Declaration sets out basic civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights that all human beings should enjoy. Over time, this unprecedented affirmation of human rights has become widely accepted as the standard to which all governments should adhere. Indeed, 10 December is observed worldwide as International Human Rights Day.

The Declaration, together with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its two optional protocols, along with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, form the “International Bill of Human Rights.”

As international human rights law developed, a number of UN human rights bodies were established to respond to evolving human rights challenges. These bodies, which rely on the High Commissioner’s Office for support, include nine different committees (the Treaty Bodies), composed of independent experts who monitor states’ compliance with their treaty obligations, and the Human Rights Council, established in 2006 as the successor to the Commission on Human Rights. In addition to assuming the mandates and responsibilities previously entrusted to the Commission, the Council reports and recommends to the General Assembly ways of further developing international human rights law. Two years after its first session the Council introduced the newest international human rights mechanism, the Universal Periodic Review.

Further reading